Shooting Blanks 

The year ends with the Memphis City Council playing what appears to be a game of Russian roulette with the issue of funding for Memphis City Schools. When a council majority last week rejected Mayor A C Wharton's call for a 31-cent tax increase to comply with a judicial order to fund Memphis City Schools, it could propose no clear alternative — other than the time-dishonored one of eliminating waste and cutting-to-the-bone and all that. Oh, and poaching from the city's reserve fund.

This is not to minimize the efforts of such council members as Jim Strickland, who has taken the lead in trying to find some means of avoiding heaping new burdens upon the city's homeowners in a difficult economic time. But Strickland's proposed solution to a shortfall of some $50 million involves taking $30 million — a serious slice — from the city's reserves while asking both the city administration and MCS to cut $10 million out of their budgets. How cuts of such magnitude are to be arrived at remains a mystery. It remains to be seen whether city-side cuts on that scale could be achieved without adversely affecting basic public services.

We cautiously applauded in 2008 when the council first attempted to draw the line by withholding its annual contribution to the city school system. Educational expenditures by their very nature are hard to judge on any concrete scale, and those of MCS had long been suspect for going top-heavy on administration as against being earmarked for definable classroom objectives. There is no doubt that the system needed to impose better standards of accountability on itself, and some degree of budget reductions may well be called for.

Moreover, the council's reluctance to continue what it saw as throwing good money after bad was a useful catalyst in forcing a long overdue debate. Largely because of it, there are ongoing discussions between representatives of city and county schools and among city, county, and state officials and school authorities on formulas for revamping school funding.

But in the meantime, city government is under judicial order to resume its "maintenance-of-effort" share of funding to MCS, which accounts for the aforesaid budget shortfall of roughly $50 million.

It's highly doubtful that the most draconian cuts in budgeting will allow a satisfactory level of school funding to be reached. And we applaud Mayor Wharton for stepping up with a taxing proposal that was bound to be controversial and which could well undermine the heady popularity which brought Wharton to office.

Frankly, we suspect that some level of revenue enhancement (that's the accepted euphemism these days for a tax increase) will be necessary to put school funding in the black. We'd love to think otherwise, but we long ago became dubious that public ends in a time of ever-proliferating expectations can be achieved by budget reductions alone. To vary somewhat the firearms metaphor we started with, to suppose that they can is shooting blanks.

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